Legal Biography: A National Training Day – Alex Giles

SOAS treasures! Credit: born1945

Legal biographers mixed with librarians, research students and other academics to create a fascinating day at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) on 15th May. Organised by the IALS and the British Library along with the Socio-Legal Studies Organisation this was a chance to share resource information and biographical methodologies; encouraging a wider view of legal study beyond the traditional practitioner approach, and providing on opportunity for some good old fashioned story-telling…

We heard from writers of legal biography such as David Sugarman from Lancaster University who’s written on Albert Venn Dicey and the U.S’s Morton Horwitz aka “Mort the Tort”, and Mara Malagodi (LSE) who is currently working on an investigation into leading constitutionalist Sir Ivor Jennings’ time in Asia; fearlessly researching in Nepal. My personal favourite was Rosemary Auchmuty’s paper on her article from Legal Studies entitled “Whatever Happened to Miss Bebb?” (link only available to City students) – the hidden story of the first woman to take the Law Society to court in 1913 over the non-admittance of women. Rosemary proved to be a veritable Miss Marple as she uncovered the twists and turns of this courageous and ultimately tragic woman’s life; a touching as well as hugely entertaining portrait.

Les Moran from Birkbeck and Linda Mulcahy (LSE) provided much food for thought over the idea of pictures as biographical data – in fact images appear sometimes to be the only source of information when there is no historical institutional record of certain people, for example Women at Court (except as defendants or witnesses), or where the subject of the particular research is “hidden” such as sexuality. This combination of interpretation from an art history perspective and traditional legal scholarship really pushed the boundaries.

Judah Benjamin Credit: Mathew Brady

The vast array of sources that are available for those interested in legal biography were shared by some of our leading librarians in the nation’s legal and socio-legal collections. Their remits are often quite different: from essentially the records of running a legal institution such as Lincoln’s Inn (represented by head librarian Guy Holborn), or Canon Law going back centuries such as found at Giles Mandelbrote’s Lambeth Palace Library, to the vast collections within collections at the British Library – encompassing such things as the private papers of legal elites, oral histories, public and institutional records, published biographies etc etc etc; nobly explained by Socio-Legal Curator Jon Sims, and his colleague at the India Office Records, Antonia Moon.

Within all the collections presented there were some choice nuggets such as Lincoln’s Inn’s collection of photo portraits, or SOAS’s archive of the controversial marriage of Botswana’s first President Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams; a great cause celebre of the time related by Susannah Rayner. I also found out from Guy Holborn that Judah Benjamin (of Benjamin’s Sale of Goods fame) was the first Attorney General of the US Confederacy in the 1860s, and later in exile was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn before writing his classic treatise. Who would have thought it?

The day was not only very informative but thoroughly enjoyable, and showed the great potential for legal study and research within any number of academic or literary fields – the possibilities are endless…

Many thanks to Alex Giles, Information Assistant at Grays Inn Place Library and volunteer at the British Library.

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